Travels into Bohemia: Goulash and Beer

If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest- in all its ardor and paradoxes- then our travels.
Alain De Botton, The Art of Travel.

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My connecting train to Krumluv was not going to arrive for two hours. I took my pack and wandered into the square near the Ceské Budejovice train station. I was hungry, and had to pee, but I had no idea where to go. I walked toward a sign that pointed to a restaurant in an alleyway. I didn’t know why I picked this particular sign to follow, maybe it was the alleyway or maybe I liked the flowers and stenciled tree on the sign. The sign did not match the restaurant. It wasn’t really a restaurant as much as it was a watering-hole that wanted to be a restaurant, but gave up on the restaurant dream years ago, and kept the sign.

When traveling I always feel awkward. It doesn’t seem to matter how many years or times I have wandered into a strange place in a strange city— that feeling of insecurity of place lingers. I live in a perpetual state of uncertainty, yet float in a state of constant awe that I’ve made it as far as I have. I’m fairly certain there are three of me living inside this one body. One is the great believer and spontaneous adventurer and the other is attempting to return to the cave where the ignorance of fear feels safe. The third is the observer wondering what the other two crazy me(s) are doing and how it is possible that we are still alive. I carry these thoughts— they are steady companions. My observer self is always amused, thankfully. What would I do without that part of me? How can one be concurrently  so confident and so frightened? It makes no sense. I think that when I die maybe these three, my personal trinity, will finally become one. Until then I live with this triptych personality; sometimes open, sometimes closed, but some how we make it. I make it. I don’t think this is all entirely on my shoulders. Other humans can make life feel awkward, and more times then not it may be a case of: it’s not me it’s them.

It was a divey little place. Smoky and filled with men having beer during the early part of the day. The only women in the place were a lady in her sixties sitting near the entrance, and a woman, also in her sixties, working behind the bar. As I stepped inside all conversations stopped and all the men turned and silently looked at me, only the smoke moved. I hesitated wondering if this was one of those places that women did not go to, but the woman behind the bar smiled at me and the other women gave me a nod. I sat at a table as two men at the table beside me turned in their chairs to watch. I can never understand the blatant staring and examination of strangers. Do people not know it causes discomfort? Is that the intention? Have they never experienced it? I sat with my back to the men, but I could still feel them staring. The man closest to me leaned toward my shoulder attempting to get a better look at my face. Again, this was a moment of uncertainty; I was uncertain as to why I was still sitting there. I felt the men turn away from me, and the conversations started up again.

The bartender told me the specials, goulash and something I couldn’t understand.

“Dom si goulash prosim e pivo, prosim.”

All I can really do in Czech is order food. As I ordered, the man closest at the table again turned to watch me. He turned back to his friend said something and they began laughing. I pushed aside my discomfort. I had had many Chinese people watch me order food and eat when I was in Zhengzhou, but I still had not grown accustomed to the examinations. Also, there is a difference in feeling when two large men are staring at you like you are not a human being, but an exotic animal and when a small Chinese woman is staring at you like you are an exotic animal. I’ve become increasingly aware of how easily people disassociate themselves from the humanness of others. The examiner is the human the visitor is the strange animal— the other.

I drank my beer and ate my goulash slowly and in silence. The men at the table behind me slowly began to lose interest in my existence. ABBA’s, Fernando played on the radio. Smoke filled the room. Men chatted in Czech and ordered more beers. The carpeting was red and worn. Carpeting is never a good idea in bars, and I wonder why it has ever been done. The lady behind the bar had a tired face and the other woman finished her cigarette and then walked out with a wave of her hand. There was a man at the bar all in black with Motorhead stenciled in white on his black leather. His hair was stringy and died black. He could have lived in Portland, Oregon. I was still hungry after eating the goulash and I resisted the urge to lick my plate. I received a text message from Carol a new friend from the TEFL program. She was now living in Ceske Budejovice with her boyfriend. I had sent her a message earlier that I would be visiting CB. Through serendipitous timing she said she happened to be in the mall very near to the bar. We agreed to meet up. I paid my bill and went to the bathroom. When I returned the bartender handed me a shot. The two men at the table beside me had bought it for me. They could not speak any English except to ask where I was from.

“Ameriky.” I said.

“Na zdraví ” they toasted to my health.

The shot was sweet almost like a plum. I said, thank you and grabbed my pack and walked out of the bar.

I met Carol and her boyfriend Lukas in the mall. We sat in the food cart chatting and discussing my return to CB and what we should do during my visit. They walked me back to the train station and helped me to find my connection.

“It is only 20 minutes to Cesky Krumluv from here, but who knows how many stops the train will make.” Lukas said.

“Hopefully, I will get in before dark.” I said, “I have no idea where I am staying.”

They wished me luck and put me on the train. It took an hour to get to Krumluv, which reinforced the fact that the student agency bus would have been the better choice for travel.

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It was dark when I arrived. This sentence was the first line I used to describe my first moments in Prague 14 year’s ago. It was dark when I arrived and I had no idea where to go. I had many memories of my first time in Prague as I traveled on the train. My first journey alone into the Czech Republic was on a train. The train, the darkness, and the blank almost meditative state of mind was a similar sensation to how I had felt all those years ago. I carried caution, but simultaneously moved blindly forward. There is never any way to go except forward.

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